10.16.2008

Poachers

This is a dissertating post.

In his life, André Gorz published 19 books, by my current count.* His longest one is over 600 pages of dense phenomenology and his shortest is really just a pamphlet. He went through three phases: his Marxist philosophy and labor-movement strategy theories from the 50s and 60s, his writings on political ecology and kinda-sorta post-Marxist stuff in the 70s and 80s, and his work on new forms of labor and contradictions within postmodern capitalism in the 90s and 2000s. I like to read all of it. I've been making good progress over here and I'm confident that I'll be finished with the books and able to move on to reading his journalism when I get back to the states.

But! The problem is that the next book on the to-do list is the first book he ever published, his autobiographical Le Traître (The Traitor.) It's a very complex piece of writing, shifting between first, second, and third-person narratives, exploring the inner workings of Gorz's mind, and generally making itself a nuisance to someone who has no business dealing with "real" literature (not to mention reading it in his second language.) I feel way out of my element trying to make sense of something that wasn't meant to be a straightforward narrative or an argumentative essay.

This got me to thinking about the disciplinary status of history again. We're the worst poachers in the business. Not only do we raid other disciplines (mostly philosophy and anthro) for theories to explain things, but we invite ourselves in and use the kinds of materials that other disciplines would like to keep as their own whenever we feel like it (especially literature.) It can be uncomfortable, because we don't always know what we're doing and we usually lack the kind of training to keep from saying really naive things about these kind of sources.

For me, the most iconic examples of this are with art. Historians suck at using art. The only person I know who has any business using images as sources is K, because she's spent years working with art historians and learning their game.** I've always been amazed seeing professional historians who use art in their presentations, because as often as not the analysis is incredibly shallow and totally under-theorized.

I worry that I'll end up doing the same thing with Gorz's autobiographical stuff. Pray for me.

(That all said, I will add that other disciplines are just as bad about using history. All of us have had the experience of reading some lit or anthro person's use of history and talked a load of smack about how they don't know what they're doing. I guess it's all just part of the charm of academia.)

P.S. On a completely unrelated note, check out pictures of Robocop on a Unicorn. Brought to my attention by the lovely and talented NinjaHQ, who needs to update her blog.

* I read in an obituary that he also wrote fiction, but I haven't seen any evidence of that or come across any more pseudonyms. The guy already had too many pseudonyms.
** I think I'm allowed to use philosophy and social / political theory stuff for the same reason: several years of bothering people who study it full-time.

6 comments:

Trust in Steel said...

Part of the reason my advancement takes so long is that I've been required to endure years of classes in Classics that deal literary analysis of ancient texts in Latin and Greek, Art History, Material Culture, and Classical Archaeology. It takes a long time to become competent in these but it enhances the quality of the historiography. The more you engage in literary analysis, the better you'll get at it. You'll do fine. In a strange coincidence, I ran into Robocop-Peter Weller a couple of times last week in the hall because he is studying with some of my professors.

kungfuramone said...

See, now, that is a weird coincidence. Seriously weird.

KellysIrishRed said...

Yes, we're poachers if we look beyond the archives of government records or historical price data and desperately attempt to write something more interesting (to ourselves and hopefully others). I tihnk this cross-discipline poaching is happening more frequently b/c of the emphasis on interdisciplinary work (w/o much training on the graduate level, of course), which sets a slightly higher bar than was set for historians say 60 years ago.

That being said, I'm certainly at the point where the further I get into my project, the more fields emerge that I know little to nothing about: history of music and folksong, poetry (I *hate* poetry, but songs are poetry... grumble, grumble), as well as the real art historical training in doing print and early modern art analysis. I think that our limited acquisition of these skills, sort of like a lot of us and language, leads to a good amout of the anxiety we feel about our work.

However, being aware of our limitations will hopefully keep us searching out the people and articles/books we need to to beef up our knowledge as much as we can.

Don't worry though, we'll dazzle them all with our eloquence and striking good looks and it'll be easy street from there.

Rachel said...

i think what may be worse than simple ignorant poaching is actively looking down upon and despising a certain other field (business) then finding yourself a few years later in that field, trying to tell yourself that really, honestly, you're not going to be like all those other retards. :)

kungfuramone said...

Ah, but your earlier anti-retard training shall surely serve you well in staving off the retardedness! :]

ninjahq said...

That blog has been abandoned due to personal complications. There is a plot to revive bsquare - only time will tell. :)